Thursday, September 29, 2016

JVP Just Can't Quit Miko Peled

Every once in awhile, Jewish Voice for Peace finds an "anti-Zionist" who is in fact too anti-Semitic even for them. Alison Weir was an example from a few years ago. More recently, it was Miko Peled (an Israeli Jew who has become a vitriolic critic of the state) who stepped over the line after linking the US/Israeli aid deal to why "Jews have a reputation for being sleazy thieves." This led to the cancellation of a scheduled talk at Princeton (hosted by a pro-Palestine group) and later another at SDSU. JVP and its head Rebecca Vilkomerson lauded the move:
Peled was livid at the accusation of anti-Semitism, going so far as to threaten an SDSU student newspaper with a libel suit for publishing an editorial calling him anti-Semitic (lawyer's aside: he'd have no case, as assessments of anti-Semitism are matters of protected opinion immune from a libel action). With respect to JVP, he endorsed the sentiment that Vilkomerson was a "zionist in the closet" who needed "to be purged out of the movement for good."

In Weir's case, it took all of six months for her to start reappearing at JVP events. In Peled's case, JVP walked itself back in the space of a few days. Vilkomerson put up a new statement that agreed she had "overreached" and "clearly made a mistake" in her reaction to Peled's "sleazy thieves" comment.

What we have here is an example of the JVP's untenable position when it comes to anti-Semitism. The problem is not that they're "critical of Israel" or even that they're anti-Zionist. The problem is that their politics about anti-Semitism are predicated on the notion that "anti-Semitism" is, in nearly all cases, a hysterical charged lobbed in bad faith by evil Zionists wanting to suppress criticism of Israel. But, having spent years hammering this message home, they're somehow surprised to discover that when they call something anti-Semitic, they're subjected to the same treatment -- dismissed as "Zionists in the closet" (Peled's allies) or "turning priorities to suit Jewish interests" (Weir's backers). They want special dispensation as the "good Jews", and they don't get it.  Instead, their "allies" treat them exactly the same as they treat every other Jew (and indeed, exactly as JVP says Jews -- other Jews, anyway -- should be treated) -- with derision, disdain, and dismissal anytime JVP tries to use its Jewish standing to challenge rather than validate their position.
Because they fail to actually acknowledge anti-Semitism as a serious and systematic problem -- indeed, because they encourage it insofar as they promote the general sentiment that Jews normally can't be trusted -- the JVP falls into a trap of its own devise. It cannot actually advocate against epistemic anti-Semitism because that would require giving credence to the bulk of the Jewish community which adopts positions they wish to see delegitimized. But having helped normalize Jewish status as epistemically unreliable, they find their pleas for a special exception (in recognition of their respectable selves) will fall on deaf ears. It turns out that, in actuality, "good behavior" doesn't in any way diminish the perceived entitlement non-Jews have to dictate Jewish behavior.
Eventually, the JVP is going to collapse under the weight of this contradiction. Again, the problem isn't that it's critical of Israel or even that it's anti-Zionist. The problem is that its power lies simultaneously in the view that Jews are untrustworthy and the view that they (JVP) are extra-trustworthy because they are Jews. The tension is sublimated so long as JVP stays in perfect lockstep with its non-Jewish allies -- JVP providing a Jewish patina to what non-Jews are already saying about Jews. But it emerges in full force and fury whenever JVP diverges from the opinions of its peers (as when they wish to challenge anti-Semitism in their movement). And the problem will only get worse. The general belief that Jews are untrustworthy, paranoid, hysterical, irrational, and/or blood-crazed cannot help but create more and more anti-Semitism of the sort that even JVP will find intolerable. But the more that JVP tries to adopt a critical rather than a vindicatory standpoint towards its "allies", the more it will see that its "credibility" as a Jewish anti-Zionist organization can't actually be drawn on.

There is space for good Jewish left-wing criticism of Israel (and plenty of groups better than JVP occupy that space: APN, J Street, and Third Narrative, to name three). But it can only work if it doesn't draw its power from a fundamentally anti-Semitic narrative of general Jewish malfeasance. For a Jewish group to take that as their foundation is wrong in its own right, of course, but it is also self-sabotaging -- a great example of De Tallyrand's famous quip that "it was worse than a crime, it was a blunder."

Monday, September 26, 2016

2016 Presidential Debate #1: Quick Reactions

First things first: Under any definition of "winning" that goes beyond "did Donald Trump manage to stay coherent and under control for a single 90 second span", Hillary Clinton won this debate hands down. There's simply no question. No, Donald Trump did not spontaneously combust in a paroxysm of rage (though there were a few moments where I genuinely wondered if he was having a panic attack). Yes, he did manage to emphasize a few effective tropes, such  the alleged mismatch between Clinton's rhetoric now and her record of accomplishment. But the overall effect was of a blustering, out of his league lunatic who could not stop interrupting, could not stop snorting, could not stop eye-rolling, and for much of the evening could barely string two coherent sentences together. That's just not going to fly on this level.

Of course, I'm biased -- but even the Republicans I've seen have scored the debate either a Clinton win or, at best, a draw. Their main complaint, of course, is to blame the refs -- the moderator, we're told, was biased! They point out that far less time was spent on Clinton's emails than on Trump's birtherism.

You want to know why that is? It's because Clinton's answer on emails was simple: she acknowledged a mistake, and left it at that. No attempt at a convoluted justification, no complaints that the whole thing was blown out of proportion, no conspiracy theory about how it was all in her opponent's head. And if you contrast that to Trump, you get what might have been his biggest problem all night: he could not let anything go. Birtherism? It was all Clinton's fault, and Trump actually did Obama a favor! Iraq war? An endless stream of consciousness demanding that we call Sean Hannity to verify that he was too an opponent. Racial discrimination? "We never admitted any guilt," and by the way, did I tell you about the time my club admitted Black people? It reached a peak when Trump started going off on how actually he had the better "temperament" compared to Clinton, and I was like "really dude? Is this the hill you want to die on?" Even Trump's supporters must have been groaning.

Clinton performed well because she actually possesses some self-discipline and was able to blunt potential problem areas early, sucking the air out of the issue. Trump was like a frenzied chihuahua on Adderall, chasing down anything and everything and hobbling himself with assertions that ranged from ludicrous (everything was "the worst deal ever") to self-sabotaging (did he just admit he paid no federal taxes?). And I have to think that every single woman watching that debate had their blood pressure rise in empathy each time Donald Trump insisted on talking over the calm, collected, prepared woman next to her.

The only thing that seems to be causing people to hesitate in awarding Clinton a total victory is the idea that "Trump is different." We thought he got eviscerated in the primary debates too, and his people loved him even more for it. I saw Nicolle Wallace make that point on NBC, and Kevin Drum said the same in his recap. To that, I simply observe that the GOP primary is not the general, and the same rules don't apply. GOP primary rules get you Sharron Angle and Christine O'Donnell. General election rules get those candidates annihilated as independents flee in terror.

This debate was the first time Americans really got a chance to see their 2016 choices side-by-side. It presented a stark choice, and not a particularly difficult one. I predict that when the full reactions are in, independents and swing voters will not react kindly to what Trump was selling.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Our First Jewish President

Harold Pollack, responding to Barack Obama's declaration that no one over the age of eight should ever put ketchup on a hot dog, tweeted #FirstJewishPresident. Really, it just marks him as a man of Chicago.

But it did get me to thinking: In the same vein that people once called Bill Clinton our first Black President, could one say that Barack Obama was our first Jewish President?

In introducing that argument with respect to Bill Clinton, Toni Morrison argued as follows:
After all, Clinton displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald’s-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas. And when virtually all the African-American Clinton appointees began, one by one, to disappear, when the President’s body, his privacy, his unpoliced sexuality became the focus of the persecution, when he was metaphorically seized and body-searched, who could gainsay these black men who knew whereof they spoke? The message was clear: “No matter how smart you are, how hard you work, how much coin you earn for us, we will put you in your place or put you out of the place you have somehow, albeit with our permission, achieved. You will be fired from your job, sent away in disgrace, and—who knows?—maybe sentenced and jailed to boot. In short, unless you do as we say (i.e., assimilate at once), your expletives belong to us.
Morrison's argument mixed elements of Clinton's background, his personal style, and the particular way he was targeted and maltreated by his opponents. I think a similar connection can be made between Obama and the Jews.

I noted before he was even elected that Obama seemed to "get", in his bones, the Jewish connection to Zionism in a way that is rare to see among non-Jews. In terms of background, Obama initially rose to prominence through scholastic excellence, most prominently embodied when he was elected President of the Harvard Law Review. His cerebral style -- concerned with argument and persuasion, believing that we can reason our way through problems while being a bit uncomfortable with the back-slapping, good-ol'-boys club mentality of Washington politics -- seems quintessentially Jewish. In terms of how he handles himself, in terms of what he values, and in terms of how he approaches politics, Barack Obama could very easily pass for a Jew.

And then there are the conspiracy theories. Obama's political career has been beset by a series of ever-more ridiculous conspiracy theories. Birtherism is just the tip of the iceberg. We saw Obama launching Jade Helm as a prelude to taking over TexasObama seeking to become UN Secretary General in order to take over the world, and of course Obama revealing himself to be the Antichrist and taking over all of human existence. I could go on more or less indefinitely.

This particular form of oppression is very much Jewish in character. A few years ago, I joked that if you ever get "conspiracy theories" as a pub trivia category, you can save time by just putting down "Jews" for every answer -- odds are that, whatever the theory, somebody has pinned it on us. The conspiracy theory may well be the central organizing feature of anti-Semitism, and it may well also be the central distinctive component of the opposition to the Obama presidency -- managing to ramp up even the fevered "Clintons had Vince Foster murdered" pitch that prevailed at the end of the prior Democratic administration. On this front, Barack Obama -- presumed to be at the forefront of every domestic and global calamity, secretly plotting with shadowy cabals and foreign enemies to bring us into ruin -- was very much the first Jew in office

Finally, there's the fact that -- while Obama is overwhelmingly popular among most Jews -- about 25% loudly declare the man utterly detestable. Which is pretty Jewish in its own right, come to think of it.

As the days of the Obama presidency come to a close, I grow ever more impressed by all he accomplished in office, and proud that my community stood firmly and decisively beside him in two successful elections. One day, hopefully in my lifetime, we will have an actual Jewish President, just as we eventually got an actual Black President and how we'll soon (knock on wood) have an actual female President. But until that day, we could do far, far worse than to identify ourselves with the Obama legacy.